Frenchman Thomas and Thai girlfriend Araya had big plans for Vietnam.Their first visit to the country in August had impressed them so much that they wanted to return for a much longer trip.
The first trip happened after they’d traveled from France to Bangkok to visit Araya’s parents. As they socialized with Vietnamese people and learnt about different places in the country, they regretted not visiting Vietnam sooner.
After the trip, Thomas researched more information about other travel destinations in Vietnam. Fond of motorbikes, he planned to enjoy exploring the northern mountains on one, apart from a leisure trip to Nha Trang, a resort town in central Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City for Araya.
The plan was to spend the entire month of November exploring Vietnam, before Thomas starting a new job in December back home.
All their plans came to naught, however, as Thomas ran into visa hassles. He found that he no longer had the visa exemption that had been applied to his first visit.
The policy is that citizens of those countries that are exempted from visas can only use the exemption 30 days after the date of their last departure from Vietnam
Furthermore, French citizens only enjoy a 15-day visa exemption.
Therefore, if Thomas and Araya wanted to spend November in Vietnam, he would have to go through the visa process and pay the visa fees. Thomas was none too pleased by a barrier he rarely encountered when traveling through Asia.
“I planned to go to Vietnam for a whole month, but within this time, I also have to fly to Pattaya (Thailand) for a wedding. If this is the case, I won’t have a visa exemption and have to go through all the procedures. I find this costly and time-consuming and am afraid that it will create issues for my trip.”
Eventually, Thomas and Araya decided on a vacation in Bali, Indonesia, a place they’d already visited.
“Bali has many fun spots, convenient and exotic resort facilities, there are many beautiful routes to drive on. Not only that, the entry procedures are easy so if we feel like it we can just pack and be on our way,” said Thomas. Indonesia grants a 30 day visa exemption for citizens from the European Union.
Open visa policy impacts
Vu The Binh, vice chairman of Vietnam Tourism Association, said visa procedures were one of the most important factors for tourism industry as it demonstrates the country’s openness. Having an open visa policy can by itself lead to a significant increase in the number of visitors, he said.
In 2017, the number of international visitors to Vietnam was nearly 13 million. This was a result of favorable policies, including visa exemptions for 24 countries, including Russia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and five Western European countries; and acceptance of electronic visas from citizens of 46 countries.
However, the number of visitors coming to Vietnam is still quite low compared to other countries in the region. Each year, Thailand has 35 about million international visitors, while Malaysia gets 25 million.
The benefits of a more relaxed visa policy have been obvious since Vietnam began to offer unilateral visa exemptions more than 10 years ago. According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the number of South Korean visitors rose 10 times, from 230,000 in 2004 to 2.4 million in 2017. In the same period, Japanese visitors increased from 267,000 to 700,000.
A similar upward trend has also been observed in visitors from countries like Britain, Germany and Spain. This marks an increase of 15% after the visa exemption took effect.
Huynh Phan Phuong Hoang, deputy general director of Vietravel, said that the visa exemption helps international visitors save time and money, and enhances the attractiveness of Vietnam’s tourism. Studies have shown that countries can attract more than 20 million visitors each year with a visa-free policy, he said.
“If we have oriented tourism to be a leading economic sector and also want to bring in a large amount of foreign currency to Vietnam, shouldn’t we open doors to visitors?” The number of international visitors and their spending on services will be much higher than the visa fees paid to us,” Hoang added.
Thomas would be able to travel in Vietnam without paperwork and visa fees as long as he only spends 15 days in Vietnam. But many citizens of other European countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal still have to apply for visas at Vietnam’s representative offices abroad, or register online for an on-arrival visa.
Vietnam offers visa exemption to 24 countries, while it is 61 for Thailand, 158 for Singapore, 155 for Malaysia and 169 for Indonesia. The competitiveness index of Vietnam in the category of visa requirements is very low: 116 out of 136 surveyed countries.
Lack of incentives
In addition, visitors who are typically big spenders from Europe or America do not enjoy significant incentives.
With several Southeast Asian countries sharing similar characteristics including long coastlines, mountain scenery and affordable prices, foreign visitors can easily switch to other destinations that offer more convenient entry and exit procedures.
Meanwhile, South Korea, Japan, China and other Southeast Asian nations who have long enjoyed preferential visa treatment from Vietnam typically make short trips and are not big spenders.
Hoang Nhan Chinh, head of the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB), feels Vietnam should focus on attracting foreign visitors from Europe, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand who tend to travel longer and spend more on holidays.
The TAB has been proposing visa policy changes for many years so that the tourism industry can achieve its goal of welcoming 18.5 million visitors and earning US$35 billion by 2020.
It has asked that the visa exemption period be increased to 30 days and that the rule about having to wait for 30 days after the last date of departure from Vietnam to enjoy the exemption again be removed.
TAB has also proposed that more countries are added to the visa exemption list, like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium, and that citizens of more nationalities are allowed to apply for electronic visas.
It hopes by 2020, Vietnam will exempt visas for 60 countries and allow electronic visa applications for 80 countries.